The threat level is rising along with the water along the Mississippi River, endangering two-thirds of U.S. grain exports and millions of dollars worth of other cargo, river transportation and federal lawmakers say.
The officials released the risk potential last week as they pressed the federal government to allocate some $95 million in emergency dredging funds to keep open the mouth of the Mississippi River, where silt carried in this spring’s historic flooding has caused heavy shoaling.
The flooding, the result of a heavy melt from last winter’s heavy snows and prolonged spring rain, has plagued inland waterways across the U.S. heartland, from the Mississippi and Missouri to their tributaries, and washed out millions of acres of farmland, in essence hitting both ends of the outbound supply chain.
The Associated Branch Pilots, whose members guide many of the 6,000 vessels moving in and out of the river’s mouth each year, on June 9 implemented a draft restriction of 43 feet, two feet lower than normal, for all vessels transiting Southwest Pass at the mouth of the river.
The pilots also joined a group including a river shipping coalition, the Port of New Orleans and some 30 congressional representatives to push for the emergency funds needed to keep the river open.
This spring’s flooding along the Mississippi River has carried massive quantities of silt to the lower reaches of the river between New Orleans and Southwest Pass at the head of the river. Although much of the nation focused on the threat to New Orleans’ levees, and the high water and swift currents delaying barge traffic upstream from New Orleans, five dredges have been working for the past month to keep the lower reaches of the river open to the navigation channel’s designated parameters.
“The Mississippi River stage in New Orleans is at 15 feet,” said Capt. Mike Lorino, president of the Associated Branch Pilots. “The last time that happened, it took eight dredges working for two months to maintain the navigation channel.”
But the Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t had the funds to operate eight dredges, so the river has silted up so much in some spots that the navigation channel is less than 200 feet wide instead of the requisite 750 feet, Lorino said.
“The river is forecast to remain at 15 feet in New Orleans at the Carrollton Gauge the rest of this month, and the bottom line is there is not enough money,” Lorino said. “The outlook for maintaining the channel is bleak.”
The Army Corps was only allocated about two-thirds of its normal $105 million budget for dredging the lower Mississippi River for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Sean Duffy, administrator of the Big River Coalition, a group of river transportation companies, estimates the corps has about $10 million remaining to fund dredging from Baton Rouge to the Southwest Pass. Because of the financial shortfall, the corps is scheduled to withdraw one dredge this week, and two more next month.
Some 450 million tons of international cargo valued at $114 billion move through Lower Mississippi River ports each year, including two-thirds of U.S. grain exports. The Big River Coalition estimates Panamax vessels will be forced to lighter cargo by 4,800 tons to transit the 43-foot-draft pass.
The largest ships able to transit the Panama Canal, Panamax vessels can handle up to 69,000 tons of cargo. The economic loss caused by the two-foot draft reduction will cost each Panamax vessel up to $595,000 for a cargo of iron ore and up to $2.9 million for a vessel loaded with crude oil.
Duffy said the 100-year flood is depositing about 60 million cubic yards of sediment that will need to be removed from the Lower Mississippi, compared with some 36 million cubic yards deposited during a normal year.
“The corps presently lacks adequate funding to address this record amount of sediment,” he said. “The sediment that has been masked by historic water flows has begun to strangle the river.”
Besides the draft issues at Southwest Pass, the river has two other problem areas, Lorino said: the “Crossings,” a section of heavy “S” turns on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and sections of the harbor at the Port of New Orleans. Silting has reduced the width of the navigation channel in both areas, Lorino said.
Gary LaGrange, president and CEO at the Port of New Orleans, said the federal government has two options to allocate the $95 million in additional dredging funds: an executive order from President Obama, or an emergency supplemental appropriation from Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“I think he (Rogers) has agreed to put money in the funding bill,” Lorino said. “But there are no emergency supplemental bills in Congress, and all the debate is about the debt ceiling and cuts; it is caught up in the political system. The Mississippi River will be left out to dry.”
Janet Plume is senior editor of JOC sister publication Breakbulk magazine. Contact her at email@example.com.